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Friends at the 'Top'

Michael Fracasso's musical star rises again, with help from community

Peter Blackstock
pblackstock@statesman.com
Michael Fracasso is celebrating the release of his new album, "Big Top," with performances at the Townsend on Sunday and Waterloo Records on Monday. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

On a mid-December evening in 2017, Michael Fracasso took the stage at Emo’s with some of Austin’s finest musicians. Guitarists Charlie Sexton and David Grissom, keyboardists Michael Ramos and Bukka Allen, and drummers JJ Johnson and Conrad Choucroun were among them. The missing man in the formation was George Reiff, whose death earlier in the year from cancer led to this five-hour tribute concert featuring a long list of artists who loved and missed him.

Members of the Dixie Chicks, Grammy winner Patty Griffin, country couple Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, and Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson were among the marquee performers. But Fracasso was a hidden gem in the middle of the lineup. These days, he mostly plays Austin’s more intimate hangouts and listening rooms, though he’s had brushes with broader success over his long career.

On this night, Fracasso’s star shone brightly. Twenty years ago, he’d made a couple of magnificent albums with Sexton producing and Reiff playing bass. Sexton suggested they revisit that material at the tribute show, and the songs they played were high points of an unforgettable evening.

It wasn’t just the crowd that was impressed. Ramos, one of Reiff’s best friends and an anchor in the house band for most of the show, was familiar with Fracasso’s work but hadn’t heard this stuff. He was especially drawn to “Mother Nature’s Traveling Show,” a carnivalesque vignette with impressionistic lyrics and a beguiling melody that’s quintessential Fracasso.

“He didn’t know that song, and he was really blown away by it,” Fracasso says. Inquiring about its origins, Ramos was amazed to learn it was from a batch of recordings that never got released. As fate would have it, Ramos recently had begun working with Lucky Hound Music, a relatively new Central Texas recording and publishing company.

The end result was “Big Top,” the long-overdue arrival of 10 songs Fracasso recorded with Sexton and Reiff just before the turn of the century. It comes out June 14 on Lucky Hound. Fracasso will play release events on June 9 at the Townsend and June 10 at Waterloo Records backed by Ramos and Sexton, just before Sexton leaves for another tour with his longtime boss, Bob Dylan.

THE HANGING QUESTION: Why didn’t "Big Top" come out back when these songs were recorded?

At the time, Fracasso was on a steady ascent from local regular to national attention. After his 1992 cassette release “Love & Trust” got pressed on CD by fledgling label Dejadisc, he moved to Rounder-distributed Bohemia Beat for 1995’s “When I Lived in the Wild,” a widely acclaimed record that helped get Fracasso tour dates and festival appearances.

In terms of career ascendance, Fracasso was a late bloomer: He was in his early 40s when those first two records came out. But he’d been working on his craft for a long time. Growing up in eastern Ohio right where it borders West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Fracasso was 11 when he watched the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show," a cultural-touchstone moment that left a deep impression on him.

He started checking out folk music shows while attending Ohio State University in the early 1970s. Soon he was writing songs and playing shows himself. After another college stint at Washington State University, he moved to New York City in 1978, intent on becoming a musician.

“I went there to get a record deal,” he says, quickly adding that it never came to pass. He got songs on two compilation albums, and several people paid for studio sessions (including Prince’s manager at the time), but nothing took root.

Even so, those were halcyon days. “It was fantastic,” Fracasso says of New York at that time. “It was gritty, and I just loved it there. I fell in love with it.”

For a twentysomething hopeful with little experience, Fracasso got some good gigs early on. The legendary punk-rock haven CBGB let him play early sets before the bands played later. And he connected with some rising stars. “Suzanne Vega still jokes about how her first gig was opening for me in New York,” he says with a smile.

There were close brushes with artists he’d get to know better a decade later, when he moved to Austin. He’d go see Shawn Colvin at a club where she played shows with Buddy and Julie Miller and Jim Lauderdale, long before any of them became linchpins of Americana music. And he saw Alejandro Escovedo with the pioneering cowpunk band Rank & File.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Fracasso first laid eyes on Austin. A prominent industry exec suggested his folk-based music might find a better reception beyond New York. A road-trip vacation with his girlfriend passed through the Texas capital.

“We drove through town; we didn’t go to any club, we didn’t see anything,” he recalls. “She was driving, and I was looking out the window and thinking, ‘You know, someday I’m going to move here.'”

TWO YEARS LATER, Fracasso packed up and moved to Austin. An early champion was Reiff, who met Fracasso in the early 1990s when both were working at Granite Cafe on North Lamar.

“He was the pastry chef there, and I was waiting tables or something,” Fracasso says. “A bunch of the folks (from the restaurant) were coming to see me play at the Hole in the Wall, and George went, and he was like, ‘Wow, OK, we’ve got to do something.’”

Reiff had been playing with Fracasso for a few years when he suggested enlisting Sexton to play drums with them. (Though he's Dylan's guitarist, drums were Sexton's first instrument.) “I’m like, ‘Charlie? I don’t even know him,’" Fracasso remembers. "But (Reiff) says, ‘Man, Michael, he knows all your stuff.’ So George called him for me, and he was like, ‘Sure.’”

“I became a massive fan because he’s got such a cool voice,” Sexton says of Fracasso’s instantly recognizable high tenor. “And in his little group (of Austin singer-songwriters), he was really the standout in his writing as much as his vocal style. George and I had a similar aesthetic for a certain kind of writing, and Michael had it tenfold.”

>> RELATED: Charlie Sexton has become Austin music's MVP

When it came time to follow up “When I Lived in the Wild” for Bohemia Beat, Fracasso asked Sexton to produce. The result, “World in a Drop of Water,” is probably Fracasso’s masterpiece. Charlie built upon Michael’s simple guitar-and-vocal takes with splendid, sophisticated arrangements that brought out the melodic magic in the songs.

“He’d hand me an acoustic guitar, I’d play the song, and then I would leave,” Fracasso remembers of Sexton's production. “We would talk about the song and I’d say this or that. But when I’d come back, it blew my mind. It was so incredible, the work he was doing.”

The record helped to launch Sexton’s career as a producer. By 2003, he’d helmed records for Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Vaughan and Edie Brickell. But as good as it was, “World in a Drop of Water” essentially sank like a stone in terms of sales.

“Everything collapsed on me after ‘World in a Drop of Water,’" Fracasso says. "I was on the road with a band losing money, the van broke down — you know, typical road stories. Checks bounced. Things were going stupendously wrong on that trip.”

Fracasso thinks Bohemia Beat’s decision to entrust Rounder with promotional responsibilities essentially doomed the record. “They put it in the hands of a country music promoter,” he says, “and that record was not country in the slightest. So I was going to country radio stations, like where they talk in a fake country voice. It was horrible. We got no traction, and the record just plummeted.”

FRACASSO AND SEXTON continued to record back in Austin, both still believing in the strengths of their musical partnership. “But I didn’t think I had the wherewithal to go out and promote something with a band again at that point,” Fracasso says.

New material accumulated in bits and pieces. The two wrote some songs for an indie film called “Monster Hunter” that mostly flew under the radar. Journalist Dave Marsh liked Fracasso’s song “Laughing Boy” so much that he sent him into the studio to record it.

A different version of another song, “Mean Ol’ Place,” turned up on Fracasso’s 2004 album “A Pocketful of Rain.” Three others briefly surfaced on “Retrospective,” a career-spanning anthology that came out on Texas Music Group just before that label folded.

Fracasso continued to make records through the past two decades, though more sporadically and without the career momentum that had been building in the 1990s. “A Pocketful of Rain” was followed by “Red Dog Blues” (2007), “Saint Monday” (2011) and “Here Come the Savages” (2016).

When Fracasso injured his hand in a car wreck in 2012, among those who rallied to help him with a benefit was Patty Griffin, who’d become a fan of his music a decade earlier and had taken him on the road as her opening act for a couple of tours. The first show of her January 2013 two-night stand at the Continental Club booked as “Patty Griffin and Her Driver,” with Robert Plant on board, was a benefit for Fracasso.

IN THE MEANTIME, a lifelong fascination with cooking, inherited in part from his Italian mother’s creativity in the kitchen when Fracasso was young, led him to branch out into a culinary side-career. Fracasso sometimes puts on music-and-food events where he’ll cook dinner and play a living-room concert. In 2013, he published “Artist in the Kitchen,” a collection of recipes with biographical vignettes woven through the pages.

>> READ MORE: Michael Fracasso tells his story through food in cookbook

But it wasn’t until Reiff’s memorial show that the spark of rediscovery brought the “Big Top” material back to the surface. Sexton remembers Ramos’ reaction upon hearing it. “He goes, ‘Dude, I just listened to the whole record. Have you heard this? This thing’s amazing!’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I haven’t heard it since forever.’

“So I just sat outside one night, it was super late, and I thought, 'Oh, I’ll listen to that Michael thing.' I sat and listened to the whole thing and got lost in it.” Posting about that epiphany on Instagram, Charlie said: “It was like discovering a record I never heard, or one that I’d dreamed long ago.”

Ultimately, both Sexton and Fracasso credit Reiff, to whom “Big Top” is dedicated, for making the album happen. Sexton summed up his thanks to George with a few simple words:

“He brought me Michael, he left me with Michael, and he helped us bring Michael to others.”

AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH FOR JUNE 2019: Michael Fracasso

New record: "Big Top," due out June 14 on Lucky Hound Music

Past releases: "Here Come the Savages" (2016), "Saint Monday" (2011), "Red Dog Blues" (2007), "A Pocketful of Rain" (2004), "Back to Oklahoma" (2001), "World in a Drop of Water" (1998), "When I Lived in the Wild" (1995), "Love & Trust" (1993)

Upcoming shows: June 9 at Townsend (7 p.m., $25-$30); June 10 at Waterloo Records (5 p.m., free)